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November 2017

Location, Location, Location.

Speculation continues about where Holt’s will be next year. Hammersmith has been an excellent showroom for them since they left the old Sloane Square premises over a decade ago. The latest news is… still no firm decision. However, I’m assured that plans are well underway and an announcement will be made soon. We may well see Greater London retained as a location, though finding a central venue offering sufficient security and space has been very difficult. Ministry of Defence buildings are ideal; but few and far between.

Valuations Using Auction Archives.

Readers may not know the ease with which they can research the prices realised at Holt’s auctions through the Catalogue Archive feature on their website. It offers a simple to use search facility that even a technical idiot  (like me) can operate. Simply type in the key words “Duleep Singh’, or ‘Lancaster’, ‘4-bore’ or ‘Bissell patent’, reflecting what you are looking for.

The search throws onto your screen every catalogue description featuring the word or phrase that exists in the database. You can refine it by limiting the search to categories like ‘Sidelocks’ or ‘Hammerguns’. By doing so, you can see what items featuring these words have been sold over the past ten or so years and for how much. So, if you are looking for a guide price on a Vena Contracta, or someone has offered you an oval-bore rifle; and you have never seen one, you may well get a ball-park idea of value from looking into past sales figures.

Of course, some knowledge of the market and its movements helps, as a double 8-bore showing a sale figure of £10,000 in 2007 won’t make that in today’s, rather softer, climate for big stuff. Still, it does make interesting reading and useful points of comparison.

The Future of Shooting and Gun Collecting

The values attached to the kinds of gun and rifle we feature in these pages are inexorably tied to the health of the sports we all enjoy and to which the implements and ephemera of the shoot are attached. There is a sensual allure to the beautiful guns that were made for our grandfathers and still work so effortlessly today. The gun cases and cartridge magazines of yesteryear add a touch of nostalgic glamour to our gun rooms and studies. But how much of this would the buying public still latch onto if the shooting sports went the way of bear bating and cock fighting, or, indeed, competitive live pigeon shooting?

Those who confidently believe that shooting has always faced opposition by fanatics, yet power, held in the hands of sensible and worldly men, has always made sure sense prevails and our age-old sports remain un-molested, may need a wake-up call. A little history serves as a reminder of how quickly the scratch of a pen can sign away our rights and change our lives and our sports.

Live pigeon trap shooting once flourished as a sport in Britain, developing from the very old challenge of hitting a bird perched on a post with a bow and arrow. In the style we know it best; live pigeons housed in box traps and released from their little prison by the swift pull of a rope, upon the shout of ‘pull’, was an immensely popular and widespread pass-time from the days of flintlock, right through the industrial age and beyond.

Pigeon matches were reported in the newspapers in the way that motor racing results are now covered. The best shots, like Capt. Brewer and Dr Carver of the USA and our own hot shots were superstars and the money made and lost in competitions was enormous. The party was to last 150 years.

Then came the First World War. Fearing that pigeons released may be used to send messages to the enemy, the activity was banned, which included releasing pigeons to shoot in the ring. One can imagine Whitehall civil servants fantasising about a plot in which a messenger pigeon with vital military secrets could be released from a box trap, purposely missed by a complicit competitor and allowed to wing its way to its German masters with the key to winning the war on the Western Front. No, pigeon shooting was clearly too risky! Possession of pigeons was made illegal under the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914.

Well, one might think, never mind, it was just a wartime precaution, once hostilities ceased, all would go back to normal. Unfortunately, once something is banned, authorities are very reluctant to give back the freedom they so quickly took from us. In 1921 pigeon possession was, once again returned as a right to the public, but the Captive Bird Shooting (Prohibition) Act expressly forbade live pigeon shooting as a sport. Where live pigeon shooting went, driven shooting of released game birds could follow. If it does, the effect on the market for game guns would be devastating in the UK.

How could it happen? My view is that those commercial shoots operating big number days throughout the season and operating outside the Code of Good Shooting Practice provide the dagger that the anti-shooting factions will gratefully accept and thrust into the heart of our sport. How long before they do so is debatable but unless we remove the opportunity, they will, eventually, take it. The sport of shooting is easily defended if carried out with sportsmanship, conservation and respect for quarry. You will never win-over the extremists but Joe Public will, I believe back us as long as we are true to the creed we espouse.

What we cannot defend in the public arena is the burning, or burying of shot birds. When shooting ceases to be a form of hunting which produces a valuable food source, when the dead birds are no more than the by-product of a rich-man’s amusement, we are lost. We have long prided ourselves on our ethical shoot management. When shooting becomes big business and respect for the quarry is sacrificed to a numbers game, our moral authority to defend our sporting way of life dissolves in our hands.

Speaking to sporting agents about the practices of a few influential players worries me. The public judge gun owners in general by the actions of the worst offenders, they will use the same criteria when judging shooters. There is much at stake, including our collective integrity. Practices like releasing birds during the season to top up numbers should be outlawed. Game must always enter the food chain and be treated as the valuable resource that it is. Otherwise, we have lost the argument and our beloved sport will go the way of the Old Hats.

Christmas Presents

While we still have a thriving market for sporting guns and accessories (long may it continue) we should cast an eye towards December and the sales leading up to Christmas. Gun auctions often feature interesting non-licence-able items that make unique Christmas gifts for the sporting man who has everything… except a baboon’s skull or a shoulder mount of a warthog! I picked up an interesting swagger stick this year in an auction. Leather covered, rather smart and probably early 20th century, it has a short, pointy inner blade engraved ‘Cogswell & Harrison’.

Holt’s are holding a sale in December in aid of The Gun Trade Association and in view of my rant in the earlier paragraphs of this article, you will be unsurprised to hear me urging all you Gun Trade people to get hold of an item that you sell and donate it – every few pounds helps when it is pooled and shooting faces some big challenges. We could feasibly be facing a Jeremy Corbyn appointee in the chair the next time grouse shooting, game bird releasing or lead ammunition is discussed across the legislative table. We need to fund the bodies that fight our corner. Make no mistake, those who oppose us are preparing for a fight and they are very well funded.

Away from Holt’s, we will see auction action at Gavin Gardiner’s (13th December) and Bonham’s (30th November) as the year draws to a close. I look forward to meeting a old few faces in London and sharing a mulled wine with one or two before we hunker down for the holidays.


October 2017

With two sales in the recent past to reflect upon and one or two other related matters, October sees the auction world rapidly turn summer into winter, sidestepping Autumn somehow and making Christmas seem almost upon us.

I was slightly concerned that I would have to find my way to a new venue next time Holt’s have a sale but Nick Holt tells me there is a stay of execution on that front, with December safely confirmed at Princess Louise House and perhaps March next year too. Whatever, there is going to be a change of venue in 2018. One possibility is Bisley. Not one I would vote for. I think Holt’s will lose a good deal of their retail customers, who habitually drop by after work in the City to check out the guns and have a glass of wine.

Holt’s pioneered this strategy with great results for themselves, back in the early 2000s and if the venue ceases to be one accessible to Londoners by tube train, I fear a lot of this custom will disappear. The central location provides that crucial accessibility and draws that, all to easily lost, ‘buzz’ that makes good auctions different. If it is true of anything, it is true of secondhand guns, that the customer is often buying the sizzle, not the sausage. Lose the sizzle and you lose the market.

Part of the reason Holt’s have succeeded over the last two decades is that they have made gun auctions sexy. Their sales are events in their own right and the talk they generate stimulates demand and sells guns. I may be wrong, but I have a strong feeling that Bisley would be a difficult venue to attract a good percentage of regular customers.

Getting Londoners out of London is hard at the best of times and if you live north of London, Bisley is a terrible drive, as that part of the country is so over-populated and the roads so congested. Despite being only 20 miles or so from my old abode in Crouch End, by the most direct route, the journey often took three hours, unless I took an eighty mile detour around the M25 and hoped the Dartford Tunnel was open and traffic flowing.

This gripe on my part is not very helpful, I realise. I hate to criticise without proffering a solution but unfortunately, I do not have a secure, police-approved, large, central London property that I can suggest as an alternative. Sometimes, one has to choose the best option available, even if none are what you really want. Still, for what it is worth, I would urge Holt’s to try everything possible to keep the sales inside London.

Meanwhile, a debate goes on about the shifting nature of the public’s behaviour at the auctions. As widely predicted at its inception, the internet bidding facilities used by increasing numbers of auctioneers become ever more efficient and sophisticated. It is now possible to go onto a central website and type in a term, say ‘Gun Case’ and every auction listing on an auctioneers website catalogue with ‘gun case’ in the description will appear in a list on your screen. This has encouraged the general public to get far more involved in provincial auctions than was once the case and now Brummies or Londoners can easily bid on lots in small sale rooms in Taunton or Shrewsbury, whereas the bidding used to be almost entirely by locals, or dealers specialist enough to travel to the sale. We did start to see the effects of this in the gun auctions. A lot of dealers now attend viewing but not the sale, preferring to bid by internet or commission bid. This trend, at Holt’s at least has softened in recent sales, with attendance in the bidding room rising again.

Internet bidding is not yet glitch proof. I tried to buy a magnificent taxidermy lion, posed coming out of the wall, claws raised and teeth bared, from a big house sale last year. I watched it all day, even making a trial bid on something insignificant. Then, three lots before my lion arrived, my internet connection cashed. It re-connected three lots after the lion had sold for half of what I would have paid for it. Much furniture kicking and cursing ensued! It also remains the case that some provincial auction houses, like Brightwell’s will not accept internet bids for firearms.

Gavin Gardiner’s August sale came up on my radar this month. I did buy a Steyr Scout rifle for a client who had wanted one for years. However, that was not really what I was thinking of. Rather, it was phone call from Scottish lady who had attended the sale and bought a pair of William Evans side-locks. This was not immediately apparent from the telephone call, she originally asked if I was interested in buying a pair of guns from her. She started describing them and said she wanted £8,000. Her description, for someone who did not appear to know much about guns was familiar in composition and I asked where she had got them from, “Gleneagles”, came the reply. And what had she paid for them? “£6,000 but that seems cheap” she told me.

Somewhat flabbergasted, I asked her how she thought a member of the public was going to make a strategy like buying from an auction, in full view of the trade, then expecting to sell at a hefty profit to a dealer, who was then supposed to add something to make it worth his while selling them, work. I politely declined her kind offer and she said something about putting them back into Gavin’s next sale. It seems as if she had bought the guns on a whim and did not know what to do with them. Auctioneers love selling the same guns multiple times – they just keep getting paid! Another similar impulse purchase was a pair of giraffe shoulder mounts that Holt’s re-listed this month, due to the buyer not being able to get them into his house.

It seems crazy that people are so cavalier with this kind of money and this type of purchase. However, it is not as uncommon as one may assume. I am quite frequently contacted by people trying to offer me auction-bought guns that they have paid too much for and expect me to show them a profit and buy them outright.

Quite what it is about guns that encourages this thinking, I cannot fathom. It is the equivalent of me going to the local car auction at Brightwell’s, buying a ten-year-old Range Rover and then taking it to Stratstone and expecting them to hand me a cheque for 20% more than I just paid out. If only life were so simple!

Holt’s are collecting lots to raise funds for the Gun Trade Association in December. any items donated and sold will be auctioned for no fee and all proceeds go to help the GTA fight our corner.  We live in increasingly difficult times as members of the gun trade and every year brings another impediment to our ability to operate, be it security demands from the police or Home Office, threats on lead ammunition or media attacks on the sports upon which we rely to stay in business. Any items can be donated, large or small. Contact Chris Beaumont at Holt’s if you can contribute.

A quick reminder of what is up-coming as the last round of London auctions appears on the 2017 calendar:

Bonhams 30th November (Knightsbridge)

Gavin Gardiner 13th December (Bond Street)

Holt’s: 14th December (Hammersmith)